Dick Lehr recalls an injustice for a YA audience
The murder of Darlene Tiffany Moore, killed by a stray bullet as she sat atop a mailbox talking to friends in the summer of 1988, has come to embody a host of painful memories for Boston.
The 12-year-old girl’s death quickly came to represent the rampant gang and drug violence that had engulfed parts of the city in the late 1980s. In the years since, however, the arrest and wrongful conviction of Shawn Drumgold for the crime have come to symbolize something else entirely: a flawed criminal justice system that in its drive to find Moore’s killer sent an innocent man to prison.
A state judge ultimately vacated Drumgold’s sentence, but only after his attorney and an investigative reporter uncovered serious flaws in the state’s case, including witnesses who said police had bullied them into giving false testimony and the discovery that investigators had withheld important mitigating facts at trial. The story of that miscarriage of justice serves as the inspiration for “Trell,” journalist Dick Lehr’s first foray into young adult fiction. The book is set for release by Candlewick Press on Sept. 12.
The novel, which follows its eponymous heroine, Van Trell Taylor, as she presses her own investigation to prove her jailed father innocent, marks a significant departure for Lehr, who investigated the Drumgold case in 2003 as a reporter for the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team. Now a journalism professor at Boston University, he is the author of six adult-nonfiction books, including “The Birth of a Movement: How Birth of a Nation Ignited the Battle for Civil Rights”; “The Fence: A Police Cover-up Along Boston’s Racial Divide”; and, with coauthor Gerard O’Neill, “Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal.”
Lehr’s latest book grew from a detail of the Drumgold case he could never shake: When Drumgold was finally released from prison in 2003, his daughter, who had been an infant when he was arrested, was roughly the same age as Moore at the time of her death.
“That never left me,” said Lehr, 63. “That’s where it came together — writing a novel for young adults. Tell the story for kids. It made sense, all the wonderings about that girl.”
Although the novel hews to the broad outlines of the Drumgold investigation, Lehr takes major liberties with the story, inventing plot twists, scenes, and characters — including Trell herself, the novel’s plucky African-American tween who teams up with veteran Globe reporter Clemens Bittner to prove her father’s innocence.
Working alongside Nora Walsh, a young lawyer inspired by Drumgold’s actual attorney, Rosemary Scapicchio, the fictional team dismantles the case against Trell’s father, Romero, getting key witnesses to recant and finding others who say he was nowhere near the crime scene.
As a first-time author of young adult fiction, Lehr found himself relying on two very different sources to help shape the book: his decades-long career as a journalist and his pre-teen daughters, who acted as his sounding board.
“I was imagining what I needed and then going into different bins in my head to pull it out,” said Lehr, who consulted files from previous stories to mine them for ideas and “see how people talk.” “I’d write a chapter and then read it to my girls for feedback.”
The book has garnered some positive initial reviews, and Lexington-based Epiphany Story Lab has optioned the film rights.
“We all remember the girl on the mailbox,” said Epiphany’s cofounder and CEO, Micheal Flaherty. “That’s when we all stopped in our tracks.”
Flaherty, who previously cofounded Walden Media, added that the novel’s treatment of race, class, and the “transformational power of education” are what first drew him to “Trell.”
“We want to make more movies with African-American heroines,” said Flaherty, whose first project at Epiphany, the documentary “Step,” follows a high school girls’ step team in Baltimore. “It’s the first book I optioned for my new company — after a decade of begging Dick to write for the YA space.”
“Trell” is but the latest of Lehr’s books to attract the attention of filmmakers. “Birth’’ was made into a documentary that aired on PBS’s “Independent Lens”; “Fence’’ is being adapted into a feature film; and “Black Mass’’ served as the basis for the namesake movie starring Johnny Depp.
But while “Trell” remains firmly in the world of fiction, attorney Scapicchio said parts of the book felt very familiar.
“There were definitely some scenes he set up that I knew where they were going,” said Scapicchio, who since the Drumgold case has gone on to win the release of other inmates. “It’s not the way that I ever evaluate a case, from someone’s daughter’s point of view, but I like that he’s reaching out to a younger audience to get them educated about the criminal-justice system.”
All told, Drumgold spent some 15 years in prison. In 2014, the city of Boston agreed to pay him $5 million to settle his wrongful conviction lawsuit for Moore’s murder, which remains unsolved.
“He hasn’t reached out to me in a while, which is good,” said Scapicchio. “It must mean he’s doing well, as opposed to needing my services.”
After years of working on the book, the facts of the Drumgold case and the story of “Trell” have become intermingled for Lehr.
“Sometimes it takes me a second to sort out what happened in the Drumgold case and what happened in ‘Trell,’ ” he said. “I’ve kind of let go of the Drumgold case. So Trell and Romero, that’s real to me.”
Lehr, who’s now back in his comfort zone and working on a new nonfiction book project, will be making several appearances in the coming months, including at the ninth annual Boston Book Festival Oct. 28 in Copley Square.
As for a return to writing about Trell?
“I’m not expecting to, but I’m not ruling it out,” he said. “There are places it could go.”